Midwinter Brings Musical Content

Some fine singers step into new roles at the Metropolitan Opera

The revived “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” on December 16 found admirable leadership under the bâton of Frédéric Chaslin, who brought out fine details in the strings and surely paced the long, disparate opera.

Ramón Vargas gave a lively, conscientious portrayal of the poet, always musical but working hard to provide the amount of sound the part’s big climaxes require. There were many beautiful moments to savor in his singing and interpretation, but in a production that has witnessed the vocally imposing Hoffmanns of Domingo, Alexander and Kraus, the overall effect was somewhat small-scale. Leslie Koenig modified Otto Schenk’s 1982 production a decade later, adding a stunning new set for the Venetian act and moving it to where it belongs, after the Munich act.

In the role of La Muse/Nicklausse, replacing Euroglam recording star Vesselina Kasarova (soon to rival Piero Cappuccilli for highest-ever proportion of cancelled Met contracts), the graceful, committed Ruxandra Donose excelled stylistically and vocally. More frequent visits by Donose would be welcome.

Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, all of 26, made a sensation as Olympia, singing in a house-filling, crystalline stream of tone with wonderful fioritura and high notes, an engaging flair for gawky, well-timed physical comedy and highly acceptable French. She brought down the house, legitimately making people laugh out loud—not a common thing at the opera. Sign her up for “La fille du regiment” immediately.

Hei-Kyung Hong, delicate and affecting, sounded ravishingly fresh in Antonia’s lyrical music, with a good trill and a stunning offstage high D; the rigors of the great trio tested her, however. Béatrice Uria-Monzon brought glamour and idiomatic command to Giulietta, though tone and words might have been clearer. As the Villains, James Morris sounded in fresher voice than for some time, but French style has never been his strong suit and as a dramatic presence he was about as frightening as a hammy department store Santa Claus; the cynical Dappertutto came closest to suiting his persona. The irrepressible Jean-Paul Fouchécourt worked wonders as the Servants and Wendy White made a fine Portrait.

Returning December 30, Kurzak still stole the show, but had some excellent competition from Patricia Racette as a more robust-voiced and febrile Antonia. Racette grasped that the would-be singer Antonia—even in dying—is “giving a performance” and acted the scene to perfection. The admirable, and admirably out, soprano will be doing some Musettas and her first-ever “Pagliacci” Neddas as the Met’s spring progresses. She is slated to open next season as Alice Ford opposite Bryn Terfel’s Falstaff.

As Nicklausse, Katharine Goeldner, if not as quite as stylish a presence or phraser as Donose, is a fine mezzo and actress. City Opera reprises her worthwhile Carmen this spring. Greg Fedderl—not so long ago L. A. Opera’s jeune premier—seems to be forging a new career as a character tenor. Too young in movement, he sang the Servants acceptably enough, though Fouchécourt is a tough act to follow. Bernard Fitch and James Courtney must have made the very oldest-looking and sounding students in this opera’s 123- year performance history; neither gave much pleasure.

The December 18 “Rodelinda” featured some new cast members—two scheduled and one a surprise. David Walker (Bertarido), only eight years into his operatic career, rose to the privilege—and unenviable task—of making his company debut replacing David Daniels, who has redefined countertenor singing for our time. If the Florida-born Walker lacks Daniels’ supreme mastery in legato passages—and experience in fully assimilating Italian texts—he had plenty to offer in the way of attractive sound and sincere, appealing feeling. Bravos—and not only from his justly proud family—greeted his beautifully limned and solidly projected initial “Dove sei.” This hurdle surmounted, he fared even better in “Con rauco marmorio.” Walker is boyish, Daniels manly; both personas worked for Bertarido dramatically.

Neither timbre blended ideally with Renée Fleming’s in the lovely Act II duet; but that can happen even at this high level—consider Beverly Sills and Tatiana Troyanos. Walker coped capably and spiritedly with the bravado of “Vivi, tiranno!”—a testing aria Daniels sings stunningly on CD and handled with brio in the house as well, but frankly, at the risk of bringing down the wrath of two admirable gay countertenors and their fans on my head, it probably calls for a heroic voice like Stephanie Blythe’s or Ewa Podles’ in the context of this huge auditorium.

Promising bass Oren Gradus made an acceptable Garibaldo, lacking the smoothness in florid passages that had been John Relyea’s best asset in the part. At the previous show, mezzo Theodora Hanslowe had jumped in for countertenor Bejun Mehta’s Unulfo after act one—marking the first time in Met history that a singer of one sex replaced a singer of the other in the same performance (the Witch in “Hansel and Gretel” has alternated between shows.) Here Hanslowe undertook the whole role and did a fine, stylish job, though the arias lay a bit low for her and I missed the oddly pert sweetness-and-light dispenser Mehta and director Stephen Wadsworth had fashioned out of this “good courtier.” On March 17 Hanslowe tackles one of her signature roles, Rossini’s Rosina, opposite the rising debutant lyric tenor Kenneth Tarver

With a frank, revealing Eric Myers interview in “Opera News” and a more sensationalized “Times” account, Andrea Gruber is the latest opera diva to grab at the “back-story” brass ring that for some has been the ticket to high profile National Public Radio and TV exposure. Fortunately, Gruber is a talented and intelligent artist whose performances compelled interest even in her rockier years vocally; her bravely shared story of overcoming active addiction and difficult personal circumstances may indeed inspire others.

She displayed fine vocal form and convincing new slim line body language January 7 in her second “Turandot”—the premiere four days before found her battling a cold. A detailed, sensitive interpreter, she retains considerable shine and spin in her penetrating dramatic soprano: maybe not a “historic” Turandot, but a highly satisfying one. Johan Botha (Calaf) sang strongly in the wrong kind of good tenor timbre.

Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, whose excellent 2001 Met debut Violetta went little remarked on, won the biggest acclaim with a musically phrased, ravishingly voiced Liù, direct and dramatically honest. Hao Jiang Tian rose to Timur’s big moments with aplomb. Bertrand de Billy has fared well in some assignments, but pacing this opera’s many transitional passages seemed to elude him; he didn’t aid the singers in shaping defined phrases, causing little fender benders (as when Gruber was still floating, “L’amore?” a few seconds into Stoyanova’s answering aria. These fine sopranos helm four more “Turandots” through February 5.

Opera Orchestra of New York Presents Stoyanova in recital at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall on Tuesday, January 18. Accompanied by pianist Yelena Kurdina, she will offer songs—some rarities among the mix—by Gounod, Donizetti, Tchaikovsky, Puccini and Rachmaninov. For tickets, $35, call 212-799-1982. The recital should be a good opportunity to experience a new side to the ultramusical diva that OONY introduced to the city in memorable concerts of “Les Huguenots,” “La battaglia di Legnano” and “Anna Bolena.”

David Shengold (shengold@ yahoo.com) writes about opera for Time Out New York,Opera News, Opera and other venues.

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